Chapter no 20

These Infinite Threads (This Woven Kingdom, 2)

THEY’D SHIFTED THROUGH SPACE SO smoothly that Alizeh hadn’t even realized they’d left the chaotic avenue until they materialized, a moment later, in the middle of an expansive flower field. Neither had she realized she was silently crying, not until she felt the wet of Cyrus’s sweater under her cheek.

With painstaking care he let go of her, drawing away in cautious movements before helping her to the ground, where she sank with a grateful sigh for only a moment before tipping slowly over. She curled onto her side, crushing a bed of tulips under her body, and experiencing all the while a physical reaction she didn’t understand. Her limbs felt dead and leaden. She was colder than she’d ever been, more exhausted than she’d ever felt, and her head seemed impossible to hold upright. Her numb fingers could hardly manage to unclasp the heavy collar from around her neck, which felt now like it was choking her, and with a final, exhausting effort, she tore it away from her throat and tossed the glittering piece to the ground.

She took a deep, shaky breath.

Alizeh could still feel those people—she still heard their voices—her lungs compressing under the weight of their hopes, her ribs cracking under the heft of their dreams.

She’d never longed for her parents more than she did in that very moment, wishing for guidance, for someone to tell her that she was strong enough, that she was worthy. That she should rise, now, more than ever.

That she would not fail if she did.

“Alizeh,” he whispered. “You’re scaring me.”

She heard his familiar voice and opened her eyes at the sound, searching for his face. Instead, everywhere she looked were flowers. She smelled grass, the welcome scent of overturned soil, the freshness of dew. Her wet cheek was pressed against the velvet petals of many tulips; a trio of bees were buzzing near her nose. She felt she might live here forever, might rest her weary head upon this flower bed and pretend, for a moment, that she was still a child.

“Please,” said Cyrus. “At least tell me you’re okay.”

“I’m afraid that’s impossible,” she said, sniffing softly. She closed her eyes again, let the flowers dry her tears.

“What do you mean?” he said, alarmed. “Why impossible?”

“Well,” she said, “because I’ve recently deduced that you’re quite charmingly pathetic.”

He sighed. “Really? You’re choosing this moment to insult me?”

“And I have a theory,” she went on, “that if I were badly wounded, you would help me. True or false?”

He went silent.

He was silent so long Alizeh had time enough to watch a drop of dew drip off a glossy green leaf.

“True or false, Cyrus?”

She heard his uneven exhale, the raw edge to his voice when he said, irritably, “False.

The nosta flashed cold. “Liar,” she whispered.

“I don’t care for this game.”

“Where are we, by the way?” she asked, her eyes landing on a particularly purple tulip, the color so vivid it seemed imagined.

In response, Cyrus did not say what was obvious, which was that they were in a flower field; instead he answered the more specific question she’d failed to ask, and said simply, “Somewhere safe.”

“Safe?” she said, managing a small smile. “Even with you here?” It was a moment before he said, quietly, “Yes.”

The nosta warmed.

Alizeh still hadn’t seen him. She couldn’t see him. The tulips were tall, her head was heavy, and she felt no inclination to move. She wondered whether Cyrus was sitting just to the side of her, and tried to picture him in his austere black clothes, perched in a sea of flowers, his long legs pulled up to his chest like a boy. His hair, she thought, would look very nice against all the green.

“And is there magic here, too?” she asked. “Yes.”

Alizeh reached a tired hand toward a wilted bloom, stroking its broken neck and sleepy petals, and the flower wriggled under her touch, straining to stand upright. She realized then that the blooms would pop straight back up once she left.

“Someone would have to walk for miles to find you here,” he said, answering another question she hadn’t asked. “There’s no direct path to this field.”

“Then what purpose does it serve?” “What do you mean?”

“The flower field,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a wild field—for it seems planted intentionally—but you say there’s no way to access it. And if it’s been enchanted to bloom always, I have to assume the stems aren’t meant to be sold at market. So why is it here? Who put it here?”

“The field exists simply to exist. There are thousands of different types of flowers here,” he explained. “It’s meant to be a kind of living painting; an experience with beauty meant to invigorate the tired senses.”

Alizeh nearly lifted her head, she was so surprised. “That’s why you brought me here?”

“Yes,” he said quietly.

“You mean, you were trying to console me?” “Bloody hell, Alizeh, knock it off.”

“All right, okay,” she said with a sigh. “Good.”

Me?” she said again. “You were trying to console me?” “You know what, you can walk back to the castle—”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I promise I’m really done this time.” She bit the inside of her cheek, and then—very, very softly—she said, “I do hope you know how grateful I am that you brought me here. It’s absolutely beautiful.”

“Yes, well,” he said, taking a sharp breath. “You strike me as precisely the sort of maudlin person who would appreciate the company of flowers while crying.”

She sat with that for a moment, trying to decode it. “Do you know,” she said finally, “I think that might be the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”

“It wasn’t a compliment.”

“Yes,” she said, smiling. “I think it was.”

He laughed quietly at that and she did, too, and the two of them fell into a companionable silence, studiously avoiding the most obvious topic of conversation. Alizeh didn’t know what Cyrus was doing where he sat, but if he had any idea how ardently she was now mulling over the prospect of taking over his empire, he said nothing about it.

Alizeh, for her part, was tickling the stems of tired flowers, watching them squirm while she deliberated. She was grateful for the moment of quiet, for her mind was a distorted mess.

If ever she’d doubted her place in the world before, she knew now unequivocally that there were people waiting for her—people who would

follow her—and to whom she was tethered by birth and fate, duty-bound to lead and unify.

And yet, for years this had seemed impossible.

It had been easy to tell herself that she could do nothing about so large a problem when she lacked a crown to make her queen, an empire over which to rule, and resources to help her people. But now—how could she willingly walk away from her responsibilities when an easy answer was sitting right there next to her, offering up his castle, his title, his land, and his people?

She’d be a fool to say no.

Then again, the obvious answer to so many of her problems was also entangled in the wishes of Iblees, who’d orchestrated this circus from its inception. He’d likely nudged her into this exact moment through devious means, having found ways to bend her emotions to his will without ever saying a word. Her parents had once warned her that her heart, if tuned precisely to compassion, would become a two-pronged tool: it would be her greatest strength and her greatest weakness.

She’d never really understood what they’d meant, for it had been difficult to imagine how empathy, so necessary in an emotional arsenal, might prove a weapon of destruction. But now she knew—now it was clear to her that the devil, who was a master of pinpointing and exploiting a person’s greatest weakness, had struck her target straight and true, and would use her compassion against her until she broke.

What would happen, she wondered, if she accepted Cyrus’s proposal— if she fulfilled her destiny?

How might the devil intervene?

She sighed and the sound carried, awakening a rustle of movement in her neighbor.

“Cyrus?” she said softly. “Yes?”

“Can I ask you a question?”

She could almost feel him stiffen in response. “I’d really rather you didn’t.”

“Yes, I realize that, but may I ask anyway?” He sighed.

“Why do you always wear black?” she said. “It doesn’t suit your coloring at all.”


“You’re not going to answer?” said Alizeh, taken aback. “But it’s such a gentle question.”

“Oh, and you have less gentle questions for me, do you?” He didn’t sound happy about it.

“A great deal, in fact.” “Once again, I’ll pass.”

“Cyrus,” she said patiently, “you can’t just ask a girl to marry you and then decline to answer a single question about yourself.”

“Try me.”

“Fine. Do you have any brothers or sisters?” He cleared his throat and said, quietly, “Pass.” “You do have siblings? Really? Where do—” “Next question.”

She hesitated, feeling dejected, and resolved to ask him something a bit meaner. “All right, then. Maybe you can explain to me why the people of Tulan don’t seem to hate you.”

“Hate me?” He laughed at that. “Why should they hate me?”

“You’re surprised,” she said, more a statement than question. “That’s interesting. But you took the throne in such a bloody, violent manner— It was in fact so brutal a takeover it was talked about all over the world. There was also a great deal of speculation as to your mental state and your ability to rule—”

“I was not the first in history to claim a crown in an unsavory manner,” he said coldly, “and I will not be the last. In the end, citizens care most about clean water, fair wages, good harvests, and a carefully managed treasury. I take care of my people. I give them no reason to hate me.”

“But people in Ardunia really seem to hate you,” she pointed out quietly. “A lot.”

He laughed again, this time with some anger. “They hate me only because they fear me.”

“Should they fear you?” “Yes.”

The nosta warmed at that, and Alizeh’s heart beat a little faster. “Very well,” she said, bracing herself. “I’m going to ask you possibly the harshest question now.”

“What?” he said sharply.

Alizeh held her breath and waited, just until she heard him sigh. Gently, he said, “What is it?”

“Was your father— Was he a terrible man? Is that why you killed him?”

Cyrus fell silent for so long that the sounds of the world around them came into brighter focus. The hush of a restless wind grew fiercer, the chirps of busy birds grew louder; flowers swayed as clouds parted and passed, making paths for the setting sun to glimmer through leaves and branches, dappling all in a heavy, golden light. She heard crickets and bees, parted her lips to draw breath, tasted the chill before it pressed against her skin.

Most of all, she could hear him breathing.

“Cyrus,” she said finally. “Will you not answer me?” “I don’t want to talk about my father.”


“I won’t discuss it.”

“How am I supposed to trust you,” she said, “if I can’t understand why you did such a gruesome thing?”

“You don’t have to trust me.”

“Of course I do.” She frowned. “You’re making me enormous promises, and I have to believe that you mean them—that you’ll fulfill your end of the bargain—”

“I’ll make you a blood oath.”

Alizeh went very, very still. “No,” she said, exhaling the word. “Absolutely not.”

“Why not?” “Because— Cyrus—”

“If you kill me, as we’ve agreed, none of it will matter.” “But you’ll be bound to me—possibly forever—” “Only if you don’t kill me.”

“And until then?”

He took a deep breath. “Well. Yes. Until then it’ll be fairly uncomfortable. Mostly for me.”

She shook her head against the flowers. “I won’t do it. It’s not humane.

You’ll have no free will.”

He laughed bitterly. “And I suppose you think killing me is the more humane option?”

“Killing you was your idea!”

“This, too, is my idea. I don’t see why you’re being so obstinate—” “Why won’t you just tell me your reasons?” she countered, frustrated.

“Your mother said you did it because you claimed your father wasn’t fit to rule. Is that true?”

“My mother,” he said stiffly, “talks too much.” “Cyrus—”

He stood up without warning, and Alizeh saw him come into view with a start, as if she were seeing him for the first time. She turned slowly until she was no longer on her side but on her back, her curls catching loose corollas as she moved, her motions sending into chaos a tiptoe of tulips. She picked a loose petal off her cheek and stared up at him through a kaleidoscope of color and stems and leaves, and for a moment she saw nothing but sky and the blue of his eyes. Then his hair, gleaming in the dying light; the elegant lines of his face, gilded by the golden hour. Alizeh did not like to admit to his beauty, which was hard enough to deny under ordinary conditions, but here, standing in an ocean of flowers, tall and somber in his simple black clothes, Cyrus was fairly magnificent.

He was looking at nothing in particular, his body turned away from hers, but the tension in his limbs—and the rigidity in his stance—belied the placid look on his face.

Softly, she called his name.

He turned his head, saw her there, and visibly flinched. Of all the things Alizeh thought she might find in his gaze, she hadn’t expected fear.

She watched his throat work as he looked at her, taking in every inch of her languid body with care. His eyes lingered in places, darkening with something she’d come to recognize as hunger. He regarded her then with an expression that came dangerously close to weakness, as if he couldn’t decide which part of her to savor longest, and his attentions, so intense, made her feel both desperate and unsteady, like she couldn’t breathe.

“You took off your necklace,” he said with some difficulty. “Yes.”


“I felt it was choking me.”

“Right,” he said, and dragged a hand down his face. Abruptly, he turned away.

“Cyrus,” she said after a moment. “Are you afraid of me?”

He almost laughed then, but his expression was strained. “What an absurd question.”

“Will you answer it anyway?”

“No,” he said drily. “I’m not afraid of you.” The nosta went cold.

“You are,” she insisted. “You think I’m going to hurt you.” “No. I don’t.”

Again, the nosta went cold. “Cyrus—”

“Stop.” He was breathing harder than usual. “I don’t want to talk anymore.”


He made a sound, something like a hiss, his eyes squeezing shut as his body seized without provocation. He clutched his torso and doubled over, clenching his teeth as he sank slowly to his knees, and as he fell forward on his hands he gasped, then bit back a cry, and Alizeh, who was watching this unfold with increasing horror, realized that Cyrus was trying not to scream.

She forgot herself.

She forgot her own tired body and shot upright in fear, her head swimming only a little as she stumbled, steadying herself as she rushed toward him. “What’s happening?” she said, stricken. “Why are you hurting? Let me—”

She touched him and he jerked away, forcing out a single word: “Don’t.”


Cyrus’s head shot back in a sudden, violent motion, his eyes going wide as he paled, his skin taking on an ashen, sickly color. His body trembled, his chest heaving as he breathed, faster and faster, his face all the while frozen in a single, horrified expression. She knew then that he was seeing something.

That he was hearing something. “No,” he shouted. “No—”

He broke then, broke with an agonized sound as he collapsed forward, his shoulders shaking as he gasped for breath.

“I can’t,” he said desperately. “I can’t, I’m sorry— Please—”

Alizeh bore witness to the torture in his eyes. She heard the low, keening sound he made as a single tear, then another, tracked slowly down

his cheek.

She thought her heart might fail.

She understood, rationally, that Cyrus was guilty of bringing the devil into his own life, but she didn’t know how to turn away from the suffering of others. She stood there and watched, horrified, while he begged blindly for mercy, as he flinched over and over like he’d been struck. Soon, a thin line of blood began dripping slowly from the crown of his head, then his nose.

Cyrus wept.

He pleaded even as he suffered, blood dripping into his open mouth as he spoke. “Not the other one,” he gasped. “Please, I’m begging you, don’t take the other one—”

Cyrus would’ve died before exposing himself like this. Alizeh knew this, knew he would’ve willingly thrown himself off a cliff before betraying such emotion before her, and yet here he was, laid bare at her feet entirely against his will. She knew the mastermind behind this misery, and she suspected the devil was humiliating Cyrus on purpose—destroying him before her as a form of punishment, stealing from him his pride in the process, his privacy. She tried to avert her eyes, but how could she? When her pathetic heart snapped in half at the sight?

She was panicked, powerless in the face of his anguish, wishing stupidly that she might wrench him free from this trance, even as she knew any effort would be futile. For when Iblees invaded a mind, escape was impossible.

No, Alizeh knew better.

She was not naive; she understood that this episode had been orchestrated for her benefit. Iblees was torturing Cyrus in an effort to manipulate her sympathies. She saw her missteps quite clearly then, and with increasing despair, realized that she’d somehow betrayed herself.

She’d started to like Cyrus.

She’d begun to see him with complexity, with compassion. She did not, in fact, want to kill him. He was no longer a one-dimensional monster to her, but a perplexing character she hoped to understand.

She’d given Iblees this ammunition.

Indeed, Alizeh suspected she could put an end to this torment right now if she said but one word: yes.

Yes, I’ll marry him.

Oh, she was tempted. She’d been deliberating over the choice all day— and she’d felt herself leaning toward an answer in the affirmative more in every hour. But if she allowed herself, in this moment, to be strong-armed into making such an important decision, she’d only be proving to Iblees that her emotions could in fact be controlled by such dark tactics—and then he might never stop. Alizeh couldn’t set such a dangerous precedent, certainly not now, when it was clearer than ever what misery she might face if she accepted Cyrus’s offer. Her only hope of unifying her people came with a steep price; marrying Cyrus would lead her directly into the devil’s arms, and she’d have to maintain a steely resolve in order to tread such treacherous waters. If she did not stand her ground now, where would this manipulation end? How many others would suffer? How many more lives would Iblees break before her in the pursuit of bending her will?

She released a shaky breath.

She could’ve prevented this. If only she’d been more guarded, if only she hadn’t cared. If only Cyrus hadn’t turned out to be so very, very human.

Slowly, Alizeh fell to her knees.

She took Cyrus’s limp hand in hers, and, like a fool, she cried for him.

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